As an accomplished theatre director and prolific playwright (his stage adaptation of Wayne Johnston’s The Colony of Unrequited Dreams plays the National Arts Centre in 2017), Newfoundland’s Robert Chafe has always had a penchant for exploring the dynamics of creation, the notion of place, and the ever-present Canadian question of identity. His decision to turn his spotlight to prose writing is a welcome one that uses these themes as a starting point to dig deeper. The tales in Two Man Tent mine the depths of loneliness and explore frustratingly common obstacles to sincere human connection. The subject matter does not, however, make for a depressing read. Rather, these stories are elegantly written, beautifully structured, and highly evocative, with a beating undercurrent of pathos that, while clearly felt by the reader, is more cathartic than burdensome.
Though the stories are not directly autobiographical, their emotional content is truthful and affecting. Chafe delves into the lives of a wide variety of people whose experiences and challenges are almost universal, and will be accessible to readers. Nowhere is this more apparent than in “No Swimming,” about a boy who loses his best friend after the death of her mother. Chafe inhabits the youngsters’ world with remarkable attention to their scarred, prepubescent worldview, something that is further shattered by the loss of their favourite swimming hole.
But much as he acknowledges and absorbs the pain of his characters, Chafe refuses to give up hope, whether it’s regarding a young man who finds unexpected comfort when he reaches out to the town misfit for friendship, or an alcoholic’s son who, despite inheriting the father’s addictive nature, sees glimmers of a better future in recovery.
Chafe also brings a delightful sense of the absurd to these stories, creating situations and relationships that nevertheless maintain an air of reality among characters whose foibles and choices many of us recognize. “Totaled” relates the story of a young man working a summer parks job whose lover comes to visit. While the milieu appears at first to be a seemingly perfect location for reigniting romance, things turn out disastrously and, following a drunk-driving encounter with a moose, the young man realizes the true nature of his lover: “he’s an asshole.”
Chafe’s focus on his characters’ desperate desire to truthfully connect with those around them brings out some of his most powerful writing. In “Waygook,” he relates the tale of a Canadian man’s teaching gig in Korea, one that is saddled with the weight of unaddressed questions about his sexuality and what that means for a future with his girlfriend. The title story similarly weaves together the fraught tensions between a young man about to leave home and his workaholic father.
Interspersed among these stories is an odd collection of missives between the author and “G—,” a California man Chafe met online. These emails and chats lead to an in-person meet-up in Washington, which has dubious results. While these rather banal and prosaic exchanges reflect the themes of the stories, the jarring inclusion of these communications contrasts sharply – and not necessarily in service to the author’s intent – with the beauty of the more straightforward short fiction, which on its own is more than sufficient testament to the breadth of Chafe’s talent